the diary thing 
IT'S RAINING WHEN MY TRAIN pulls into the station, and thanks to the thick fog I haven't a clue where the station is relative to the city. After joining an anarchic queue for cabs, I finally find myself on my way to my bed & breakfast.

Ottawa is a small town, basically -- a rough but well-sited logging outpost that was chosen quite blithely to be our nation's capitol: imagine a Victorian version of Brasilia. The government basically employs the half of the town that the new high-tech industries don't hire. Downtown, the parliament buildings on the choicest edge of the river dominate in a benign way, though office buildings, blocks and complexes housing countless bureaucrats and clerks can be found all over the city. 

My b&b is off Elgin street, one of the main drags in the town. After checking in, I set out in the drizzle, north toward the river, trying to hail a cab. I'm almost at the parliament buildings when I finally flag one, and ask the driver to take me to the War Museum. I could have walked, since he lets me off barely a couple of blocks later, but I hate walking in the rain.

The War Museum is housed in Vimy House, an old government edifice on the edge of the river, between the Mint and the National Gallery. Constantly cramped for space, it's apparently been promised a new home, but I doubt that the budget approval is a high priority.

I decide to make it my first stop to get me in a frame of mind suitable for my job here -- researching my father's time in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WW2. I've actually been looking forward to the war museum for a long time, which is probably why it turns out to be a bit of a disappointment. 

The museum's collection is apparently quite vast, but space restrictions and slim budgets keep most of it either in storage or on display at other museums. The displays are mostly dated, and usually involve a secondhand shop dummy dressed in a uniform, posed in a display case or diorama. In some cases, it seems that displays haven't been given a re-think in decades; a mannequin wearing a Japanese uniform, standing on guard by the entrance of an exhibit devoted to Canadian POWs in the the Far East, has the evil, slant-eyed face of propaganda films -- another mannequin dressed in an SS uniform has been given the cruel, handsome features of a textbook Goebbels aryan.

There was a controversy here a year or two ago about Hitler's car -- an armoured Mercedes-Benz that the museum was given by private collector years ago, and which it considered selling to fund expansion. The outcry was immediate, both from alarmists who feared that it would fall into the hands of neo-nazi fetishists, and from more sensitive types who thought it probably the most powerful exhibit in the museum. It frankly left me cold, and I wondered about the kind of people who might feel a powerful attraction to a dictator's car. 

Don't get me wrong -- I'm completely behind the War Museum and its goals, and I feel a deep sympathy to their funding and space problems. If anything needs to re-examine its mandate and goals with some regularity, it's a War Museum, hopefully without falling victim to political correctness and the kind of banal thinking that begins and ends with a statement like "war is evil". Yes, it's evil -- it's also a considerable aspect of our history, and won't be going away anytime soon. Let's deal with that, instead of using examinations of war as an opportunity to voice our impeccable humanist pieties.


"There never was a good war or a bad peace."
- Benjamin Franklin

Ottawa -- day one, part two: museums.
Private W. A. Haggard
 Painted around 1942 by Lawren P. Harris  (19101994) 


I'M FINISHED AT THE WAR MUSEUM in a couple of hours, and with hours before closing time, I decide to head over the Museum of Civilization, across the river in Hull, to see an exhibit of official war art owned by the War Museum but kept in storage for lack of exhibition space. I could probably walk across the bridge, but its still pissing rain, so I stand around in front of the National Gallery trying to hail an cab. Ottawa taxidrivers, it has to be said, aren't the keenest trawlers for fares. 

The Museum of Civilization is a huge, architecturally ambitious complex across the river from parliament, on a spot with probably the most romantic view of the capitol. The museum's in Hull, Quebec's twin city to Ottawa, and exists with a mandate seemingly as nebulous as the politcal thinking that willed it into existence. 

As a structure, it has plenty of lofty areas and public spaces that might look good in a photo or architect's drawing, but which don't manage the most basic of museum functions: exhibit art and artifacts. Just what a "museum of civilization" is supposed to exhibit is anyone's guess, and could include everything from paintings to pails to hockey pucks. Indeed, the exhibit in the space next to the war art, focussing on India, seems to have more tourist handicraft than significant artifacts, and opens directly onto the well-stocked gift shop. It's the kind of politically expedient curatorship that seems to dominate museums these days.

As for the war art, I can only say that it was probably the most moving show I've seen in years. I walk through it twice; once to take in the whole of the show, once again to take it in piece by piece, spending much time sitting on the little-used benches and banquettes provided by the museum for older visitors. I'm probably in the best frame of mind possible for a show of war art -- focussed entirely on a past conflict and desperate to get some feel of my father's place in it -- but I have to say that their collection of official war art, of which this show only manages to feature a few "greatest hits", is probably one of the most valuable things we have in our national patrimony. There's a desperate effort underway to raise money for exhibition space, and it's a cause I'd support unhesitatingly -- if I had any money to spare.

I'm particularly moved by a few, small paintings -- planes taxiing in the night at Gander airbase, a WW1 munitions factory with women workers barely visible under the whirring belts of machinery and hazy air -- but I sit for twenty minutes in front of an enormous canvas of the battle for Vimy Ridge, a hopelessly unfashionable "epic" painting that suggests, in a way that only decent painters can manage, the enormous destruction and awesome scope of a battle, right down to shell bursts that seem to bloom out of the corner of the eye.

THE RAIN HAS STOPPED by the time I've finished with the show, so I walk back across the river in the brightening evening sun, slowly taking in the gothic parliament complex and the cliffs below as I make my way back to Elgin for dinner and an early night in my room.

writing ©2000
Rick McGinnis
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